Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 24, 2007 - Rock Star?

My journey, as a cancer patient, has taken me to places I never imagined I’d ever visit. Claire and I have just returned from what may be - for people like us, anyway - the most unlikely destination of all: Las Vegas.

Our friend, Dana – the member of our church who organized the local Lymphomathon walk last Spring – is a sales representative for Genentech, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Rituxan. When her company was looking for the names of patients who have benefitted from Genentech’s products to address their national sales meeting, Dana submitted my name. I knew nothing of this until I received an e-mail from her, telling me I’d soon be receiving an invitation, and that she hoped I'd accept.

The company paid for all the necessities: our flights, our meals and a couple of nights at the posh Venetian Hotel (where the meetings took place). It was a short stay, with precious little free time, but Claire and I decided to blow my honorarium on a couple of shows: Phantom of the Opera one night, and a Cirque-du-Soleil-type show called La Rève on the other. Both were fabulous.

What was even more interesting was the opportunity to simply absorb the Las Vegas ambience: “Disneyland for adults,” somebody called it. The only real industry out there, it seems, is entertainment. It’s staggering to imagine the vast amounts of money exchanged every day in those huge hotels, for the sole purpose of amusement. I’m not talking just about the gambling casinos, either, nor the notorious “showgirl” lounge acts of the city’s bad old days. Vegas has reinvented itself in recent years, going upscale, becoming a sort of Broadway of the West.

But, I digress. My speaking assignment was among the shortest I’ve ever had: fifteen seconds before a gathering of 2,000 or so Genentech staffers, followed by a two-minute talk to a “breakout group” of 800 salespeople who work specifically with the company’s oncology drugs.

“You’re going to feel like a rock star!” gushed Brenda, the consultant Genentech had hired to coach our little group of twelve patients on our presentations. Brenda’s company had arranged for photographers to snap portraits of each of us ahead of time, and these images became part of a video montage projected on large, stadium-style screens, as the nominators told their colleagues a few things about each one of us. Then, the booming voice of an offstage announcer informed the crowd that each of the people whose stories they’d just heard were actually present in the room. Upbeat rock music started pouring out of the speakers. Spotlights tracked each one of us, as we strode down various aisles, to take our prearranged places on the circular stage.

It was very Vegas – although I expect similar, razzle-dazzle entertainment values are typical of large corporate sales meetings, wherever they take place. I didn’t mind, because – in giving us patients our "rock star" moment – the company’s senior management was sending their salespeople an important message: that they want their corporate culture to remain strongly patient-focused.

Later, in the breakout group, four of us cancer survivors sat on TV-talk-show-type chairs, as a senior executive invited us to share our stories. As we spoke, our images played on the overhead screens: a very public display, as we shared highly personal experiences of diagnosis, treatment and the ways life goes on - a rich mélange of faith, hope and love.

I thanked this small army of salespeople for the indirect role they play in delivering life-saving medicines to patients like me. These folks, of course, are the earnest and well-turned-out road warriors, whom we patients see hurrying through our doctors’ waiting rooms, bearing updates on the latest products and treatment protocols. I encouraged them, on their next trek through a waiting room, to let their eyes linger for a moment on the faces of the people sitting there. Each one displays a story. Each one reflects fears for the present, and hopes for the future. We are the reason they do what they do.

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